Destined to Fail? How the Division of Korea Led to the Korean War

By Hammal, Rowena | History Review, September 2010 | Go to article overview

Destined to Fail? How the Division of Korea Led to the Korean War


Hammal, Rowena, History Review


If there is one issue on which historians should be able to agree, it is that the artificial division of a country usually creates more problems than it solves. The twentieth century is full of examples: Ireland in 1921, Germany after each of the two world wars, the partition of India in 1947, the creation of Israel in 1948. Korea's division led to a war which proved as serious as any of the difficulties encountered by those nations. A unique set of internal and external factors combined to create a conflict which almost precipitated a nuclear war. President Truman wrote in despair in December 1950, 'I've worked for peace for five years and six months and it looks like World War Ill is here.'

Fortunately, Truman was proved wrong. The US was able to restrain itself from using the atomic bomb, and the USSR decided not to become fully involved in the war. Instead, North Korean and later Chinese troops fought a conventional war against the United Nations forces led by the US. International losses were heavy: up to 1 million Chinese, 33,000 Americans, and 686 British soldiers were killed. However, for Korea the war was truly cataclysmic, leaving an estimated 3 million civilians (approximately a tenth of the population) and 500,000 soldiers dead (from North and South), and ending with a stalemate which has left the country, divided to this day. This article will examine the division of Korea into North and South, and consider how this led to war.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

A Line on a Map

The division of Korea in August 1945 was a practical response to the situation in East Asia at the end of the Second World War. The USSR had entered the war against Japan a week previously, and Soviet troops were marching south through Japanese-controlled Korea when news came of Japan's surrender. Japan's defeat had occurred sooner than anticipated by the US command, which did not yet have troops in Korea, so in order to prevent the USSR from seizing control of the whole country (as had recently happened in Eastern Europe), it was agreed that the Soviets and the Americans would divide Korea between them. Two US colonels were given half an hour with a map and a ruler, and decided on the 38th parallel as it gave the US control of the capital, Seoul, and was already printed on most maps of Korea.

The line cut across a thousand years of Korea's history as a unified nation. It also ran counter to economic logic, as the resulting halves were interdependent; industry was concentrated in the north, while the south was predominantly given over to agriculture. Most importantly, the division flew in the face of the wishes of the Korean population. Koreans had suffered under Japanese colonial rule since 1910, and by 1945 Korean nationalism was at fever pitch. Korean independence was, in fact, almost the only thing which the vast majority of Koreans agreed on. The country had yet to modernise its economy, and was effectively still a feudal society with vast areas of land concentrated in the hands of a privileged elite, many of whom had worked with the hated Japanese administration. Korean politics was therefore dominated by left-wing groups, some of which where Communist, calling for land reform and the punishment of collaborators, and by right-wing elements who hoped to maintain the status quo within an independent Korea.

An opportunity to build consensus across the political divide was lost in 1945 when the US refused to work with the Korean People's Republic (KPR), a coalition of parties which included rightists, moderates, and Communists, all keen to provide a united front so that government could be passed into Korean hands. However, the US was determined that Korea should be prepared for independence via a long trusteeship, principally to ensure that Communism would not take root. The KPR declined to accept American authority, claiming that it was the official government, and as a result it was first ignored and then outlawed by the American Military Government. …

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